September 28, 2009 Subject:
Confessions of a Young Man (1886) is a memoir by 30-year old Irish novelist George Moore (1852-1933). It is an unusually frank account, by the standards of the time, of an Irish expatriate's life as a bohemian artist in Paris and London during the "fin-de-siecle". Moore describes drinking absinthe in Parisian cafes with founders of Impressionism - Manet, Degas, Monet and Pissaro - before England had even heard of them. His Paris studio was adorned in "pagan" trappings such as Indian lamps, red velvet ceiling canopies "to give the appearance of a tent", Turkish rugs and couches, incense and candles of the Orient, a Buddhist temple, a statue of Apollo, "a faun in terra-cotta that laughed in the red gloom." He kept a large python (snake) in the house and once a month fed it live rabbits while Gregorian chant music was played on a pipe organ. Friends came to watch. His sexual escapades are only hinted at in typical Victorian fashion, such as two satin slippers nailed to the head of his bed and used as an ashtray, or bedrooms bedecked in trees of flowers. Moore is completely unapologetic about his debaucheries, which interestingly don't seem that shocking today.
Moore's memoir is unusual for Victorian writers because he is so outward with his feelings and views. He spares no ones reputation, including his own, in the name of honesty. Oscar Wilde quipped of Moore: "He conducts his education in public". It is eerily modern, yet clearly Victorian in style, an uncanny valley. The Modern Library chose it in 1917 (1925?) as among the first to be included in the series, but is now long out of print. Moore spends a lot of space on literary criticism - he is critical of just about everyone popular in the day (except Shelly and Balzac), but praises the school of Aestheticism and Walter Pater. The last chapter is probably the most gripping, describing a duel between himself and a young aristocrat whom Moore baited into a fight to gain notoriety (Moore is boastingly unapologetic).
The book was written in various chapters over time and can be a bit inconsistent in style and focus, like a collection of essays, but lively and full of youthful energy. Two years after Confessions, his publisher Henry Vizetelly was charged with obscene libel for the publication of an uncensored translation of Emile Zola's La Terre (which contains incest and pedophilia, among other things). Moore supported Vizetelly's efforts, and his Confessions can be seen as weapon in the war against hypocritical Victorian morality. His last chapter is a sort of "bait" to his detractors to take up a public duel, Moore knew debating morality in public would expose the contradictions. He was ahead of his time and by WWI the old facades no longer held as Modernism took the center. The morality struggles Moore fought in the 1870s and 80s, like this book, are largely forgotten today - but it's a fun and curious step back in time to see how the rebels of another era are so much alike and so very different.